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Major Tommy: Interview with Tommy Hilfiger

From a small town in New York State, Tommy Hilfiger started a fashion empire that changed the world. His first show in London for 20 years indicates he’s out to reinvent American style once again

Tommy Hilfiger is the American Dream. Born Thomas Jacob Hilfiger in 1951, he grew up in Elmira, New York State – a town whose motto is, rather proudly, ‘A Great Place to Live’. The second of nine children, his father was a watchmaker of Dutch-German descent, and his mother an Irish nurse.

He founded his first store, People’s Place, with two friends in 1969 aged 18, doing so with the $150 life savings he’d earned from working at a petrol station. The store was stocked with clothes from New York City, incorporated a record shop, and held rock concerts in the basement. 

“As a teenager, I was really influenced by rock ’n’ roll artists and the cutting-edge fashions they were wearing,” Hilfiger tells me. “It was impossible to find those styles in Elmira, so I decided to design them myself, inspired by the musicians I loved. 

“I then opened my first store, People’s Place, where we sold the coolest clothes while blasting our favourite rock tunes. This is when I discovered my passion for designing.”

It’s not just rock and roll that has informed the direction of Tommy Hilfiger. The brand’s ability to traverse the preppy, rock and R&B scenes is unique. The '90s was a particularly rich decade for Hilfiger’s collaboration with the R&B world, with superstar singer Aaliyah becoming the brand’s spokesperson in 1997, and artists as varied as Snoop Dogg, TLC and Destiny’s Child wearing its range (when Snoop wore a Tommy sweatshirt while appearing on Saturday Night Live, stores in New York sold out within a day.) The brand is now worn by the likes of Drake and A$AP Rocky.

“Pop culture has influenced my designs throughout my career,” says Hilfiger. “I’ve always embraced change, evolution and innovation – that’s what pop culture is all about. 

“Staying on the pulse of pop culture has helped to keep our brand relevant generation after generation.”

The latest project, TommyNow, is a global fashion roadshow. The first three events (#TOMMYNOW in New York City, TommyLand in LA, and now RockCircus at the Roundhouse in London) have changed the definition of what it means to put on a fashion show. Similarly to the London Palladium events put on by Joshua Kane, TommyNow is more of a set piece than a show; it ended with flying dancers, and a performance by The Chainsmokers, recently employed as the new faces of the brand. As much a spectacle as a chance to look at the new collection, RockCircus had an air of the extravagant, with fashion glitterati mingling with style enthusiasts after the show. 

Central to the project’s success is the brand’s modern outlook – Tommy Hilfiger was an early adopter in an industry slowly realising and understanding the power of social media. The new campaign’s central star, Gigi Hadid, currently has more than 36 million Instagram followers, and the list of social ‘influencers’ at Tommy’s shows grows with each guest list. RockCircus was also streamed online, and all items on the catwalk were available immediately from the venue and on the brand’s website. Last year’s New York Fashion Week show was the first time Hilfiger had embraced the see-now, buy-now concept. Traffic to tommy.com increased by 900 per cent.

“We break conventions,” says Tommy. “We’re always looking for new ways to democratise the runway. The livestream connects us with our global audiences in a powerful way. 

“My vision for TommyNow was to create a platform that we could take on tour and bring to new audiences around the world. Social media is another fantastic platform, where we can share our inclusive spirit, bring ourselves even closer to our consumers, and introduce our brand to the next generation of fans.”

Reinvention is core to the brand, but some things don’t change, one of them being the ‘preppy’ factor of Hilfiger’s collections. Although the latest collection is decidedly ‘rocky’, influences of Ivy League schools and over-the-shoulder sweaters remain. When I ask him whether the preppy style will survive in a future fashion landscape, Hilfiger is enthusiastic: “Fashion is constantly evolving. Our brand DNA is all about adding a fresh twist to classic American cool designs. I love seeing how our fans combine their own style to our modern designs.” 

It also helps that his clothes are supremely comfortable, something that could be attributed to Hilfiger’s time in India. In a book produced by Assouline, aptly titled Tommy Hilfiger, the man himself details how, towards the beginning of his brand’s expansion in the early ’80s, he would spend time in the factories where his clothes were produced, “with my pile of sketches and watch [the clothes] being made, tweaking as I went. There’s no better design school in the world.” 

RockCircus marked a return to London Fashion Week after a 20-year hiatus, but, says Hilfiger, it is a city that he loves. “London has an amazing fashion and music heritage. I first visited because I wanted to explore the style. I was influenced by the British bands of the time like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Who. They had and have a style very different to anyone else.” 

Hilfiger dressed the Rolling Stones for their 1998 world tour, and was an official sponsor of The Who’s Pete Townshend’s 1993 Psychoderelict tour. His company also became sponsor for artists from varying genres, including Sheryl Crow, Britney Spears and Lenny Kravitz.

Besides the glamorous catwalks and exclusive parties, Hilfiger is a serial charity worker, having launched the Tommy Hilfiger Corporate Foundation, supporting charities that help at-risk young Americans. He and his second wife each have a child on the autistic spectrum, and both are on the board of directors for charity Autism Speaks, with Hilfiger recently designing a T-shirt to support the 2017 Autism Speaks Walk. Hilfiger was also a big name in the campaign to build the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., completed in 2011. Indeed, when I ask him who he looks to for inspiration, Hilfiger is unequivocal in his choice: “One of my idols is Martin Luther King, Jr. He was one of the greatest forces for change in American and world history, and I’ve always had the utmost respect for his passion, devotion and what he stood for as a leader.” 

In the fashion world, he hopes to be a leader himself, in sustainability. After reports on factory workers in Bangladesh found major welfare problems, Tommy Hilfiger’s parent company PVH signed a factory safety pact, and invested money in improving the lives of those making clothes for many Western brands. “It’s our mission to be one of the leading sustainable designer lifestyle brands, and our future success is dependent on bringing sustainable practices into everything we do.”

As always, Hilfiger is looking to the future. It’s down to the rest of the fashion world to keep up.